What the Westerns of the ’90s and 2000s REALLY teach us about cinema

1990, 1996, 1997 From the breakout 1980s to the late noughties, westerns were about to make a comeback. Of course, the recent Jason Bourne and Logan came first, then the biggest western of all…

What the Westerns of the '90s and 2000s REALLY teach us about cinema

1990, 1996, 1997

From the breakout 1980s to the late noughties, westerns were about to make a comeback. Of course, the recent Jason Bourne and Logan came first, then the biggest western of all time, The Wild Bunch. However, in the 1980s and ’90s, film studios were still struggling to make big pictures. Lionsgate wasn’t even a real company, and ’90s westerns weren’t prepared to shoulder the burden of the studio system.

Case in point: The Explorers of Two Worlds. It was based on a 1944 novel by Carl Van Vechten – a feel-good tale about four American boys who head on an ancient, haunted mission to England. A gender-bending sci-fi western, based on an actual WWII expedition? Couldn’t happen! Except it did: The Explorers of Two Worlds became one of the best horror movies of all time, and is positively pure fun to watch on repeat.

Some of the greatest westerns of all time are based on westerns, or Westerns based on westerns. Case in point: long before David Lynch was making brainy classics, he was stealing wheelhouse films – Fargo – to create mind-boggling throwbacks to mid-century filmmaking. In the end, The Big Lebowski is a stylish re-do of the Coen Brothers classic Miller’s Crossing, complete with soundtrack to match.

In the mid-90s, Wes Anderson was making quirky, hilarious comedies, but he was also creating so-so, faceless westerns to match: Bottle Rocket is a fun film (even if it suffers from tonal problems), but it could be a completely different movie. Then there’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a Wes Anderson western that, not only borrows the setting, but the surface tone and themes as well.

Back in the mid-90s, Clint Eastwood was everywhere. The guy was the new Good Ol’ Boy, and his approach to westerns was very different from what Hollywood was doing. The Bone Collector is one of the great mysteries of all time, with stealthy suspense and gore. Clint is amazing.

But by 2001, Eastwood had turned his back on most of the genre. It’s clear now that his 2002 remake of The Unforgiven was the first step of an attempt to shake-up the western, and when Unforgiven won him a Best Actor Oscar he was honest enough to admit he had been a one-trick pony for decades.

By 2013, shootouts and double entendres had become a bit passé. When Quentin Tarantino made his Django Unchained western, he seemed to have left the genre behind. Yet Tarantino is basically a joke; he used the clichéd frontier as a piece of visual comedy, and could have easily made a title sequence as silly as John Ford’s.

By the end of 2013, the western had gained its footing again. Image from Empire

The surge began with Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant 2012 film There Will Be Blood, a harsh, deeply-felt drama about greed and ambition in the mining industry. The movie became a hit, thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance, though it’s not that surprising it was a hit – it is totally unique and original, and perfectly fits Anderson’s brand of experimentalism.

Likewise, Quentin Tarantino made his best-loved western in 2016, with Django Unchained. While it lacks the lean and focused storytelling of his best films, it’s, at its best, a chaotic and funny ride.

But Quentin Tarantino’s greatest American film is an oldie, but a goodie. Pulp Fiction is, if nothing else, a perfect example of a film that has managed to stay with us for 20 years. How can there be any better watch, let alone a 21st century redo?

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